Explosion of Metal Subgenres in the 80’s

I entered my teens when heavy metal became a household word. Back in 1983/84, heavy metal was the music of choice among my friends. We had such a choice, too. There were Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and the old boys, Black Sabbath. Then there were the hits bands like Quiet Riot, Def Leppard, Twisted Sister, and Motley Crue. There were the German bands: Scorpions and Accept. And then there were all the bands who managed to squeak a video on the late night video programs, bands such as Killer Dwarfs, Krokus, Kick Axe, and so on.

Helix

Helix

Back in those days, heavy metal was not neatly divided into various sub-genres as it is today. Van Halen, Blue Oyster Cult, Motorhead, Venom, Saxon, Helix, and even AC/DC all fell under the metal banner. If your music was loud, hard, heavy, pounding, fist-pumping, head-banging rock, that was enough. Headpins “Turn It Loud” was metal enough. Santers made it in the heavy metal pages. Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, KISS, and the list goes on. These days metal scholars and fans are much more critical and discerning about what gets called metal and what is hard rock. Metal itself has splintered into so many subgenres, and I would say that the 1980’s were responsible for this rapid branching of the metal tree.

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Exodus (photo from Full In Bloom Music)

The first subgenre I heard about was thrash metal. While the Los Angeles metal scene (which gave us what is now referred to as glam metal or hair metal) was producing wild and colourful bands like Ratt, Poison, Cinderella, and so on), metal purists who loved Judas Priest, Motorhead, and Venom and who also liked hardcore punk, decided to go against the grain and emphasis speed and aggression over party rock and cosmetics. The leaders here in the 1983 to 1987 period were Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, Slayer, Testament, Exodus, Death Angel, Violence, and a host of others. The music became not only faster but, as in the case of some bands, it also became more technical.

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Anvil

Around this same period, specifically 1982 to 1984, three other countries also saw movements toward extreme metal. In Toronto, Canada there was a concurrent metal movement that was initiated by the band Anvil. Anvil are often seen as the link between traditional heavy metal (Judas Priest, etc.) and thrash metal. But Anvil were not alone. Sacrifice, Slaughter, Razor, and Exciter were also part of this speedier and more aggressive scene. The Canadian label Banzai began stamping albums with a speed metal logo. Quebecers, Voivod, also earned this label, as did some European bands like Destruction. Speed metal today is recognized as being different from thrash metal and also power metal in that it is a little looser, and bit more biker-ish. As it was described on Banger Lock Horns (44:55 to 45:15 in the video), it’s like power metal but with a five-o’clock shadow.

Meanwhile, across the pond in England, the hardcore punk scene was taking an interest in metal. Going the opposite route from American thrash metal bands, who added hardcore to metal, British grindcore bands added metal to hardcore. By the latter half of the 80’s, you had two similar metal scenes with different roots.

Then there was Germany, Switzerland, and Sweden. Inspired by the music of Judas Priest, Motorhead, Black Sabbath, and Venom, new bands emerged in these three countries that would prove to be very influential in the development of new emerging subgenres. In Germany, Kreator focused on violence and aggressive, heavy music. Though similar to thrash metal music, Kreator’s sound was more evilly intense, more threatening, the vocals gruffer and growlier. Switzerland produced first Hellhammer which evolved into Celtic Frost. Here was a band that combined the speed of thrash metal with the slow and heavy riffs of doom metal and featured a vocalist who could growl and roar even lower and more ominously than Motorhead’s Lemmy or Venom’s Chronos. Finally, up in Sweden, a young Tomas Forsberg created Bathory, a band which focused on Satanic lyrical themes and, like others, combined speed and heaviness. Most outstanding was Forsberg’s vocal style: a back-of-the-throat, rattling, croak that could resemble a wicked witch singing. Though they were not yet fully developed, the subgenres of death and black metal were gestating amid the sounds of these bands.

Back in the U.S.A., two important bands were taking thrash metal in a new direction. Possessed from California released “Seven Churches” in 1985. The music was thrash-based, but Jeff Becerra’s deep, roaring, guttural vocals and the band’s Satanic themes took thrash metal as Slayer had conceived it into darker territory, if that were possible. Across the continent in Florida, Chuck Schuldiner was putting together Death and the first album, “Scream Bloody Gore” was released in 1987. While thrash metal lyrics were more about violence and war, death metal focused on gore and the occult. The American death metal scene produced bands like Morbid Angel, Obituary, and Autopsy in the late eighties, and by the early nineties the scene had fully grown, particularly along the East Coast and up into Quebec with bands like Cannibal Corpse, Immolation, Malevolent Creation, and Gorguts.

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Darkthrone – Black metal from Norway

By the late eighties, both Norway and Sweden had picked up on the sounds of black metal and a second generation was born. Though both countries would contribute, it was basically Norwegian bands that moved from death metal over to the black metal scene, while in Sweden death metal became the more popular.

Taking a cue from as far back as Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, power metal was yet another subgenre to emerge from the eighties metal scene. Ronnie James Dio, who had sung with Rainbow in the seventies, took the knights and dragons theme further in the mid-eighties on his “Sacred Heart” album (the tour featured a towering dragon on stage).

Virgin Steele

Virgin Steele

Virgin Steele in New York also moved from a trad metal approach into power metal. As someone on Banger TV said, power metal is trad metal but with louder, bigger, more over-the-top, with bolder melodies and an almost symphonic approach to music themes. It’s totally conceivable that symphonic metal developed from a combination of power metal and prog metal. The vocal style is usually more operatic, and Judas Priest’s Rob Halford can be seen as creating the blueprint. Manowar, Helloween, and Blind Guardian are recognized as early true power metal bands; however, elements of power metal can be found in the music and also the lyrical themes of bands like Iron Maiden, Queensryche, Uli Jon Roth era Scorpions, and Accept.

While it seems a natural course for heavy metal music to become more aggressive, more technical, darker, faster, and heavier, two other subgenres that emerged from in the eighties were looking to travel with their guitars down slightly different paths. Perhaps the older of the two would be progressive metal. The instigator would likely be Iron Maiden. Bassist and founding member Steve Harris was a fan of progressive rock bands of the seventies and right from the debut album in 1980, Iron Maiden proved there were more than just a band of three to four minute songs. They included instrumental sections that were not just dedicated to guitar pyrotechnics and even instrumental tracks. Iron Maiden was clearly an influence on two important American bands now associated with the development of progressive metal: Fates Warning and Queensryche. Add to that Crimson Glory and Watchtower and you have four of the earliest prog metal bands.

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Queensryche

Following the lead of Iron Maiden, these bands endeavored to write music that had complex instrumental parts, or danced around odd time signatures. Lyrics were often more intellectual and socio/political. The star child of progressive metal would be born in the eighties but not stamp its mark on the subgenre until 1992. Dream Theater was the band that seemed to define what progressive metal should be about, and yet the desire to take metal into more progressive territory was already spreading to the thrash and speed metal scene in 1986/87 as Metallica introduced longer songs with multi-part musical themes on “Master of Puppets” and “…And Justice for All” and Voivod created their own form of space sci-fi prog metal, culminating in the classic album “Nothingface” in 1989.

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Godflesh

The other new and also more experimental subgenre of metal was industrial metal. Musicians combined metal’s heaviness and aggression with techno and electronica, giving birth to a new underground movement. Ministry, Godflesh and others both in the U.S. and overseas in Europe (Germany’s KMFDM) kicked off the first generation of industrial metal in the latter half of the eighties and the movement continued into the nineties, gaining a second momentum by the middle of the decade.

One other important subgenre that came into its own in the eighties would be doom metal. Originally born in the sound of Black Sabbath in late 1969, bands such as Saint Vitus and Pentagram (who were actually active concurrently with Sabbath in their heyday) emphasized slow and heavy riffs and particularly Saint Vitus sought to recreate that early seventies sound. As the eighties progressed, some bands combined the speed and deep guttural vocals of death metal with the slow and heavy riffs of doom metal, and thus the death/doom subgenre was also born. Autopsy were one band that emerged from the Florida death metal scene who liked to slow down at times and get heavy. Meanwhile back in England, My Dying Bride and Paradise Lost also emphasized deep, growling vocals and slow heavy riffs. Interestingly enough, the European bands would go on into new directions now labeled gothic metal and post metal, as would many bands from the black metal scene.

It’s not uncommon to hear people criticize the 80’s for a lot of crimes against pop music and rock. However, I find it really interesting to see how heavy metal experienced an explosion of growth in subgenre branches. We saw thrash metal, speed metal, grindcore, black metal, death metal, progressive metal, industrial metal, doom metal, and death doom all emerge from the heavy metal tree. Now we recognize traditional metal, hair or glam metal, and hard rock as the three most popular forms of heavy music in the eighties. But in the underground, so much more was happening.

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